Bags On My Feet: A Mes de misión Memoir

The Invitation

By: Oriah Mountain Dreamer

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I walked into Mes de misión with few expectations, a nervous heart, anxious excitement, an unidentified yet eager desire to grow… and plastic bags shielding my feet from my drenched boots due to the daily downpours. To say the least, I was extremely unprepared. I have a lot of updates—life with my host family, Christmas celebrations Tacna style, New Years on the beach, move-in to Casa Fred Green—but I’ll try to keep this post succinct and paint as vivid of a picture with words and photos of my Mes de misión experience.

To give you a little background, each year JVs accompany groups of high schoolers from two schools in Tacna on a month-long summer service project called Mes de misión. This tradition emerged in 1971 when students, with the leadership of Fr. Fred Green (the patriarch of Jesuit projects in Tacna, namesake of our community’s house, and currently the oldest living Jesuit in Perú), from Colegio Cristo Rey and Colegio Miguel Pro volunteered in an earthquake-shattered town in central Perú. The tradition has lived on ever since bringing Tacneño teens, with the support of JVs, to different lifestyles and cultures where they witness social injustices facing their fellow Peruvians. This year we headed two hours east to a Sierra town of 60 called Talabaya.

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And it was here that I was reminded of my reasons and desires to accept the JVC invitation—to leave the familiar, to set out on a truth-seeking journey, to accept each person along the way as my teacher, to face and forgive some difficult realities about myself, and most importantly to surrender to God. These truths were not withheld from me.

Objectively speaking, we lived in accordance with JVC’s four pillars of simple living, spirituality, community, and social justice. For example, my one pair of workpants broke the first day leaving me with a single pair of pants, I counted the days I’d gone without a shower, we slept side by side in sleeping bags sharing a small classroom, we cooked and shared every meal together, we participated in and led Examen prayers and reflections, we lived without modern-day technology, we deepened our exploration of service-learning, we cried and broke down in front of each other, and I read Dean Brackley’s Discernment in Troubled Times. And although we did all this, it ain’t to say it was easy. Almost everyday I had to tell myself in the midst of walking up a steep mountain, or cutting ten onions, or shushing the girls at bedtime: “Well, no one said following Jesus would be easy!” or more surprisingly I’d turn to a community mate and say: “I’m actually seeing Jesus in Lucas* [or insert another name here] today.” I began to see what I view as the face of Christ in students like Lucas, Talabeños, and fellow JVs. They walked valiantly and transparently, they made a mistake and asked for forgiveness, they wrestled with their imperfections while coming to terms with their creation as image and likeness of God, they taught me more of what it means to be human.

While the students learn from the daily manual labor and form relationships with members of Talabaya, the ultimate goal is to live in and create a community born out of love. Like JVC, Mes de misión strives to develop stronger students, humans, and Christians through sleeping in one classroom, cooking together, sharing prayer, reconstructing andenes (farm platforms), discussing ideas and issues, and more. And we asesores (group leaders) accompanied the students through each workday, hail storm, questionable meal, fake fart, and awkward quinceañera The difference, however, is that these students did not get to choose to enter a microcosm JVC experience. Yet, I felt incredible empathy with the kids, and three fellow JVs, because we too struggled together just as much as we laughed. And when I woke up in the morning sore from a long day’s work, I had to motivate six sluggish kids to reconstruct an anden, which consisted of piecing together fallen rocks into a small platform like a game of Tetris. But this was also a great way to relate to the kids. Together we missed our families, chocolate, suffered frequent stomachaches, learned how to listen, struggled to understand our Talabeña friend/boss Ines, and also had no clue how to reconstruct andenes. I was easily reminded of my acceptance of and love for the four pillars of JVC.

It is now three-weeks past our return from Talabaya, and I’ve needed this distance to gain an appreciation for surviving a beast of a month. In all honesty, I had no idea how much I’d struggle and grow. It really isn’t until you’re stripped to your core that you discover what makes you tick or even what your heart desires. I look back at my journal for specific ridiculous stories, traces of emotions, and moments of surrender to Her will. To give you an idea of a typical entry, here’s Day 12:

“Today I found two of my group members slaughtering and subsequently dissecting a frog. I saw Lucas* dangling the frog in the air and Cleo* clutching a pico (pickax). They were guilty as charged, and I sure didn’t need any more imagination on the killing itself. Unfortunately, we are almost halfway through Mes de misión and this is the exact opposite of what this month should be about. We are supposed to grow as stewards to each other and Creation, especially as we work alongside Señora Santa on a farm that’s been in her family since this was Chile territory. But fortunately, this incident ended in a healthy group conversation initiated by Paula* (a 14-year-old group member). My group showed vulnerabilities to each other, and even apologized for their persistent bullying. And this gave me hope that we’re here to be stewards for the benefit of all, as Dean Brackley says.[i] This includes but is not limited to each other and frogs.”

I reacted impulsively on Day 12. But it was this instance that also brought grace and a “seeing the face of Christ” moment. Like myself, the majority of my group was frazzled, upset. As it turns out much of the group discord stemmed from problems in Tacna. No surprise there, but it was humbling to sit in a circle and listen to each move beyond their surface and share. By no means did this completely change the course of their work ethic, but I noticed a change in respect; I noticed more laughter. The barriers between the cool jocks, yu-gi-oh nerds, and gossipy girls disappeared. The shy kids opened up their social groups; while the loud and usually brash students demonstrated stellar teamwork skills. On the last day, I saw students walking across the school handing each other appreciation notes. And if working with kids, especially in a nontraditional context, is about building relationships, then we must share each of our stories and vulnerabilities, including myself as In a world of separations in Peru and the USA, I felt the healing powers of humility, generosity, and bridges.[ii]

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While transforming as a community, we slowly all began to appreciate the small-town charm and hospitality of our new neighbors in Talabaya. We gratefully shared a meal—goat milk, lamb soup, sopapia (fried dough)—in Tito’s humble home. We played soccer against local men and women. We exchanged laughter and gossip with our new friends Ines and Teodora. We accepted a daily bag of canchita (popcorn-like snack) in return for our work. We listened closely to stories of puma attacks. We learned about the fascinating work in the chacras and history of the town during Chilean occupation. And we also asked about the challenges and joys facing our neighbors today.

I walked out of Mes de misión with muddy boots and pants, greasy hair, a coffee and chocolate craving, an urgent need to shower, a newfound fondness for puberty-raged teens, a redefined desire to live simply, a discovery of Peruvian Rock, an alpaca selfie, and more. If you had asked me on Day 11 if I was enjoying my time accompanying teenagers, I would’ve given you a hard ‘no.’ But now if I was asked about one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced (thanks Kristin), I’d easily add this Mes de misión to the top of my list. And now I am eager to enter this JVC invitation with trust, surrender, and perspective.

*I altered the names of students to protect their privacy.

[i] Brackley, Dean. “The call to discernment in troubled times: new perspectives on the transformative wisdom of Ignatius Loyola.” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004).

[ii] Ibid.

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A routine wake up call
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Chopping, boiling, delegating
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Grupo 2 captured lookin like family on a rare occasion
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dream team, women-power behind mes de misión
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how i feel about my students vs. how they feel about me
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quite the urban zone
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just a normal cooking day with Miss Maddie and Profe Carlos
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Talabaya’s main street–unmarked and recently paved in 2014
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